The Role of Authority in Shaping Human Behaviors

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science

By Steven Gimbel, Ph.D., Gettysburg College

In 1963, the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a lieutenant-colonel in the S.S., presented a compelling case regarding the reality of the human mind and what shapes our decisions, beliefs, and actions.

A doctor is facing a glassy human silhouette with the mechanical cogwheels inside his head.
Stanley Milgram wanted to know what leads decent humans to perform brutal acts. (Image: Natali_ Mis/Shutterstock)

The Trial of Adolf Eichmann

Eichmann was in charge of arresting millions of people, sending them to concentration camps and death camps. He did not engage in any of these projects or meet a victim in person. He was the mind behind the whole system and the one who designed it.

The picture of Adolf Eichmann, dressed in his uniform.
Adolf Eichmann was the architect of the Final Solution. His trial raised serious questions about the root of human behaviors. (Image: Unknown Author/Public domain)

His trial in Israel triggered the question of how a human being could have done what he did. He could be easily dismissed as a non-human, a monster that was irrational, immoral, or insane. But the small, normal-looking man that was sitting in his cage during the trial destroyed all these presumptions.

Unlike Hitler’s anger and fury when he addressed the crowds, Eichmann was calm and mild. According to the psychiatrists who examined him, he was normal, sane, and pleasant. He did not look like he was the architect of the Final Solution, at all.

What led this normal man to do such cruel acts? He just wanted to please his superiors. He was doing his duty. It was just a coincidence that he worked for the Nazis, and if he worked in another place, he would have been a hardworking employee who pleased his bosses.

These people shift the blame to their superiors and consider themselves innocent. They say that they were just doing their jobs. His trial inspired a series of studies on obedience.

This is a transcript from the video series Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science. Watch it now, Wondrium.

A Study on the Influence of Authority on Human Actions

Stanley Milgram, the American psychologist, conducted this study. The study involved three people. One of them filled the place of authority as the one who led the experiment about the effects of negative reinforcement on memory. The real test subject was a teacher, and the third one, a confederate who pretended to be a subject, was the learner.

The photograph shows three people involved in the Milgram Experiment.
Stanley Milgram studied the role of authority on human behavior. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

The learner was attached to a make-believe electric chair. The learner had electrodes attached to his wrists. The teacher would read pairs of words to the learner, and he was supposed to associate them. Then, the teacher would read the first word in the pair, and the learner would have to say the second. If he said the right word, they would move on. Otherwise, he would get an electric shock, which would grow in strength as the experiment went on.

The electric shocks had varying degrees, with every degree eliciting a reaction proportionate to the strength of each shock. The last switch created a shock that appeared to kill the learner. Of course, the shocks were not real, but the learner would react accordingly.

The authority clearly instructed the teacher to apply the shock. He said that he, the authority, would be responsible for anything that happened. So the teacher had to follow the authority’s orders. Therefore, the experiment aimed to test if obedience to authority was more powerful than morality.

Learn more about current and future ethical challenges.

The Findings of Milgram’s Study

The results of the first round of study conducted on Yale undergraduate students revealed that 25 out of 40 continued to obey the authority. It means 62% of them would abide by the authority even to the point of killing a person.

The objection to this study was based on the subjects being Yale students. These students are accepted to Yale because they know how to obey authority. Other people would act differently.

But the results were similar across other groups of different ages, socio-economic statuses, and nationalities. In some cases, the results were even higher. For example, a study conducted in Munich revealed 85% of the subjects used the final switches.

Learn more about pushing good people to do bad things.

The Strong Influence of Authority

The results showed that authority was indeed powerful. But the subjects were not cold-hearted murderers who enjoyed seeing other people suffer. Instead, they were obviously stressed out, nervous, and distraught. It was obvious that they were not willing to do what they were told to, but they did it anyway.

So the study revealed that authority was more powerful than the moral urge not to hurt other fellow human beings. According to Milgram, “The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding an explanation.”

Therefore, Milgram contends that totally normal people can perform acts of cruelty by justifying that they were doing their jobs. They cannot resist the authority and stop performing those destructive actions, although they know the consequences.

Common Questions about the Role of Authority in Shaping Human Behaviors

Q: What is Adolf Eichmann known for?

Adolf Eichmann was the architect of the Final Solution. He was responsible for arresting people, sending them to concentration camps, and finally to the death camps during the Holocaust.

Q: Who conducted a study on obedience?

Stanley Milgram, an American psychologist, conducted this study and proved that humans follow the authority even if it means going against their morals.

Q: What did Stanley Milgram’s study teach us?

Stanley Milgram’s study shows that people who are normal and decent can perform acts of violence and justify their actions by shifting the blame to their superiors.

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